On blogging, ethics and not being a douche

The internet is full of innocuous, time-sucking crap. In the time it takes me to write something of actual substance, I’ve been buzzfed 29 of the most amazing pictures that look like photos but really aren’t, I’ve liked at least a dozen photos of creme caramel, and I’ve pinned at least 17 different photos of someone growing beans or a pumpkins over an arbor.

I am as bad as everyone else in that respect. It is through this lens that I ask you to read the following post. Because for me to somehow suggest I’m above any of the things I’m criticising is pretty bloody hypocritical.

Three weeks ago I had emergency surgery. There was something in me that needed to come out. It was all very dramatic, thank you very much. Suffice to say ‘I’m fine’. Thanks to the miracle that is modern medicine I was back on my feet after just a few short days, and travelling to Perth and then Japan not long after that.

I was travelling to Perth for the fourth annual food blogging conference known as ‘Eat Drink Blog’. Having spent a bit of time on the other side of the table at last years conference, I was looking forward to spending some time catching up with people I knew, getting to know others I didn’t, and generally letting my hair down and enjoying being in a beautiful place, with great food and good company. And it was all of those things. I got a little merry (thank you Westwinds crew and the Sydney ladies), ate far too much and had to wear my stretchy pants on the long flight between Perth and Tokyo.

Late last night I came across a twitter ‘fight’ (we have those now?) between a group of bloggers essentially arguing about whether it was OK to accept sponsorship from PRs when writing your blog. This stemmed from a highly charged session at the conference, where one person argued that it is impossible to remain objective when receiving freebies and another argued that being selective in your dealings with PR companies was totally OK, and a number of resultant blog posts that appeared shortly after. There are a range of side-thoughts in the same vein- ie. are food bloggers journalists (No), do we have a responsibility to our readers (Maybe), and is it OK for someone to work in PR but in their personal life openly reject the very idea of it (*beard stroke*).

I read all of this through the lens of just having had emergency surgery, praising the magic sky-fairy that I was still alive and able to spend time with my loved ones, while reading about how our Immigration Minister is preventing a new mother from spending time with her baby because she had the audacity to flee a war-zone and seek asylum in a country where we enjoy the freedom to talk about such issues as whether accepting a free packet of Twisties is ethical or not.

Call me cynical, maybe I’m that annoying person at the dinner party who is always pointing out your first world problems (yeah, sorry about that chums) but in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter? The climate is changing and more than half of us couldn’t give a shit about it; we’re locking people up in detention centres causing irreversible harm to their mental health, and every night in Australia alone more than 100,000 people are sleeping rough – and we’re worried about whether or not someone can be objective when they are sent something free by a PR company?

If only we could all get as puffy chested and self-righteous about things that actually matter, eh?

I don’t really know what I’m trying to say here, and I’m quite sure I’ll be criticised for it (which I’ll be feeling sad and pouty about for at least 3-4 minutes) but to be honest I just find it all terribly boring and beige. My initial reaction to all of this is that there are far more things to be worried about than whether or not I should accept a free thingymajiggy from Betsy at the Trader Shop (not a real company). But then I remember that, no, this stuff is important. Because, let’s face it, there are some really shitty companies out there who do Bad Things like pollute rivers in third world countries, cut down old growth forests to provide more land for their cattle to graze, and create pesticides that are killing the bees.

But then how do we deal with all this and still have fun? Further, aren’t there some great restaurants and companies out there doing Good Things that are worth talking about? Many of the blogs and comments I’ve read in response to this matter have said they write for fun, to pursue an interest or improve their writing or photography skills. For me, it started as a way to share recipes with friends and reignite my interest in photography. When we start talking about ethics it’s an entirely new prospect for some people, indeed many of the conversations I’ve had with newbie bloggers in recent times have been about how to navigate this landscape. I can therefore understand, and indeed relate to, the point of view of many bloggers who say they just do what feels right to them.

‘I just thought I was getting some free saucepans… now I’m a baby-killer?’

The aggressive, condescending manner in which some people argue their point of view on all of this is not helping our cause to raise awareness of the real issues in the food industry. To publicly humiliate someone for having a different opinion is just plain tacky. You can be as true and authentic as you like, but ultimately if you do something to cause another person to feel bad about themselves then you are no better than the person who accepts that free bag of chips that you so heartily criticise. That is ultimately what I hate about this kind of crap – ‘I’m great because I feel validated by my worldly position on subject matter a, I therefore look down my nose on you, peasant, who does not feel the same way’.

Ultimately, I tend to see both sides of the anti-PR argument, I get that there are malevolent forces at play in all walks of life, and that malevolent forces prey on the unsuspecting food blogger who unknowingly spriuks a product made by Satan himself. And I agree with you that that shit ain’t right. But I suppose where I differ from others in my approach to this is in the area of blame.

Activism and change-making happens when we acknowledge that everyone starts from a different level of understanding. Our lived experiences are all different, coloured by tragedy, indifference and everything in between. If you, the food blogger doesn’t realise you have just become a shill for Satan, are you a bad person? Would you prefer it if someone sneered and judged you behind your back, or worse, mocked you openly in front of 80 of your peers, or would you prefer it if that person took the time to explain to you why perhaps you should not accept any more freebies from Satan, and left you to make up your own mind?

It seems to me that the second option actually helps people grow and understand the role they play in The Conversation. After all, we spend a lot of time talking about how important and influential we all are, maybe we should actually do something with that influence and be a part of the movement for change. It takes less energy to dig in your heels and maintain an opinion about something (even when you know it might very well be wrong) than to concede to an aggressor that they are right and you have fucked up.

Anyway, am I making sense here folks? Perhaps the organisers at next years conference could consider running a session about the politics of the food industry and the role bloggers can play in creating a better world. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, and many will vague out and think about the cupcakes that are being unloaded for afternoon tea, but what if we help change the mind of just one person in the room? If you think something is important enough to chastise another person about then it is probably worth putting in the effort to help make that person (and countless others around them) understand a different point of view and why they should think carefully about what and who they write about. And if they don’t? Well then you totally have the right to punch them in the face.

;)

  • http://Gourmetmale.com Jamie

    Very interesting post! I’ve been doing my blog for 18 months and seriously have never been approached by anyone other than a hair rag company…

    • http://shecooksshegardens.com Erin B

      I’m still giggling about this, Jamie. :)

  • http://www.beyondjelly.com Mary @ beyondjelly

    Thank you! I wanted to write a post similar to this, but you’ve done a better job than I would have. No matter how ‘right’ a person is, they’re far more likely to bring about change through non-combative means.

    • http://shecooksshegardens.com Erin B

      You’re welcome, Mary – it was great to catch up with you over the weekend too.

  • http://Taurusrising Kelly

    Its easy for me, as soon as a blogger starts doing to much promotional, getting too mqny freebies and reviewing them, i stop reading as thae blog becomes beige.

    • http://shecooksshegardens.com Erin B

      Thanks Kelly, it’s always interesting to hear the reader’s perspective on this. I’m interested to know what your cut off is as I know I’ve done a few sponsored gigs but have tried really hard to balance that with original content. If you’ve got the time I’d love to hear more from you about it.

      Cheers
      Erin

  • http://hungryaustralian.com Christina @ The Hungry Australian

    Love your work.

    And I’m totally stealing ‘beard stroke.’

    • http://shecooksshegardens.com Erin B

      You’d better attribute that beard stroke, missy! ;P

  • http://www.bizzylizzysgoodthings.com Lizzy (Good Things)

    Ugh… I saw part of that on Facebook and Twitter too, Erin, and, with this in mind, to a degree I’m glad I wasn’t well enough to make it to EDB this year (and I write this without criticism of the EDB organising committee who worked so hard). I really don’t want to listen to people tearing each other apart on these subjects when there are so many more important things out there that food writers and bloggers can tackle. Besides, I see the PR/blogger/media thing from both sides of the coin, as in my role as marketing manager for a food company, I sent freebies to media all the time and (for my efforts) scored thousands of dollars worth of free publicity for my CEOs in major glossies and metro papers across Australia. You raise a good argument here, although I’m not sure I agree with you about having the right to punch anyone in the face.

    • http://shecooksshegardens.com Erin B

      Thanks Lizzie, for what it’s worth that last comment about punching people in the face was intended to be very much tongue in cheek. I would never condone that sort of thing! Sorry if I hadn’t made that clear. I hope you’re feeling better soon, it’s been a long road to recovery for you, you’re in my thoughts.

  • http://www.whatsonthelist.net Joanne T Ferguson

    G’day and wow Erin, I have to say (in my opinion), this is the best overall of what I have read about the “issues” that came up at the conference and the (again in my opinion) caustic yet passionate comments via Twitter and blogs too!
    While I was not at the conference, (as a reader), it was and is more than clear that people also have their own ethics, morals and standards as to what they choose to accept, promote, share via their blogs and in real life.
    I agree in the end, more positiveness and about positive food people, products, services, “sense of community” (especially within the blogging community) would be better received by all readers.
    The food blogging world lost a remarkable person this week; she connected many people worldwide through her food passion, enthusiasm and her positiveness. Will she be remembered for her ethics? She was a tremendous person that we all had the privilege to be blessed to know and in turn she united people one challenge at a time too!
    Life’s too short not to enjoy and remember having and sharing fun food!
    Cheers! Joanne

    • http://shecooksshegardens.com Erin B

      Hi Joanne,

      I was sorry to hear about Lis Cifelli, it really does put everything into perspective, doesn’t it?

  • http://shadybaker.blogspot.com.au Jane @ Shady Baker

    This is very good Erin and so true. Your first sentence is awesome. To copy Christina…I love your work too :)

    • http://shecooksshegardens.com Erin B

      Thanks Jane. :)

  • Grant NOWELL

    You make some very profound and valid points..you are clearly a nice person

    • http://shecooksshegardens.com Erin B

      You rock, Grant. Thank you!x

  • http://www.clairekcreations.com Claire @ Claire K Creations

    Great post Erin! It really does annoy me when people get so riled up about others having a differing opinion when it makes absolutely no difference to the person. Let’s see what next year brings shall we?

    • http://shecooksshegardens.com Erin B

      Thanks Claire, I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference.

  • http://www.orgasmicchef.com Maureen | Orgasmic Chef

    Have I told you how much I love you? :)

    Now we all know I’m no spring chicken. I’m probably one of the oldest (absolutely oldest? maybe) food bloggers in Australia. I can’t be bothered getting into all this hoo ha about being righteous in blogging. I just don’t give a shit. We all have our own path and the “I’m better than you because I don’t take money,” just makes me nuts.

    To those who have been clever enough to turn their blogs into businesses accepting money and travel and gifts – good for them. If someone doesn’t like it, don’t go there. Nobody should tell anyone else what’s right for them.

    It’s expensive to create a good food blog. Beyond the webhosting, software, design, etc, there’s the extra food that you must buy that often doesn’t get eaten after test recipe #3 and don’t get me started on being told I should visit a restaurant 2-3 times before writing a review. I simply cannot afford it.

    Not everyone has the ability to to have a blog just because they have something they think is important to say about food.

    I have as much respect for someone who turns down every paid opportunity as I do for the one who will take a box of socks in exchange for a post. If your blog is good – it’s good and people will find you. If you have a crap blog, whether you accept payment or not, people won’t stick with you.

    • http://shecooksshegardens.com Erin B

      Thanks Maureen, you’re pretty alright yourself you know. :)

      You’re so right, it is expensive to run a blog and we all have different motives. Your readers will ultimately decide what they do and don’t like – just as Kelly has said below, and it’s entirely up to you whether or not you choose to adjust your content to reflect that.

  • http://www.corridorkitchen.com Lau

    I find it equally ‘aggressive and condescending’ to say that this whole debate is just boring/not worth having.

    To my mind, the fact that the mere suggestion that not working with PR companies could be the way to go elicited such a wide range of responses means it is a debate worth having, and I’m glad you’ve added to it.

    • http://shecooksshegardens.com Erin B

      Hi Lauren,

      Thanks for your comment. While I feel that you may have slightly missed the point of the post, I appreciate the feedback and apologise if what I’ve said has caused offence.

  • http://84thand3rd.com JJ @ 84thand3rd

    Love a good rant – especially one with good points in it. Your para that starts with “The agressive, condescending manner…” is spot on and what made me so angry about the whole thing. Well said. Wish I had been able to catch up with you more at the conference, I felt like every time I saw you I was running somewhere! Hope you had a brilliant trip to Japan!

    • http://shecooksshegardens.com Erin B

      Thanks JJ! I felt a bit like that all weekend, still it was great to see you when I did. Trip was great, thanks!x

  • http://diginhobart.blogspot.com.au/ e / dig in hobart

    it’s been great reading your post and everyone’s comments 9and esp lizzy and maureen’s).
    i think what’s interesting is that in blogging, it’s good form to declare if you have received a goody; but magazines are obviously full of promotional pieces and recipes and reviews – think about those front pages with zappy little pieces on the latest gadget or product – yet disclaimers are very teeny, if there at all. i think the double standard is interesting.
    i was tempted to agree, ‘first world problems’, but it’s how you conduct yourself on the little things that are meaningful perhaps only to yourself that indicate how you’ll act in the bigger world, too.

    • http://shecooksshegardens.com Erin B

      Absolutely e, I wanted this post to be a bit of a ‘show your workings’ post – to demonstrate how difficult it can be to navigate through this minefield. I hope that came across in some way, your point about the small things is absolutely spot on.

  • http://www.chompchomp.com.au Martine @ Chompchomp

    Hi gorgeous, I had no idea you were recovering from such a scare! I am so glad you are feeling better. Your post has captured my sentiments precisely. I have been sad to see such polarised and antagonistic behaviour develop within the food blogging community that I love. Only weeks prior I was boasting to my non-blogging friends about how openly friendly and supportive us food bloggers are to each other whether we know each other or not. Ultimately I guess the point is as you say; there are much bigger, important and more valid things going on in the world around us that we could be spending this emotional energy on.